The danger with the word masterpiece is its singularity: each artist gets just one.
So when James McMurtry follows up two excellent records with his best work yet, the richly detailed and keenly observant Complicated Game, is this the peak? Or merely another step in a powerful streak?
Either way, the seven-year wait between Just Us Kids and Complicated Game is quickly forgiven, the new record showcasing McMurtry’s unparalleled songwriting voice while taking a turn toward more traditional acoustic Americana.
The album finds its subject matter mainly in relationships, and though the title is the same as his new label, the word Complicated is particularly fitting. There are the hopeful, the spiteful, the perseverant, the patient, the thankful and shades of others across the songs, in characters and vignettes McMurtry sculpted from blood, bone and brain.
The album begins with “Copper Canteen,” with McMurtry, the master of finding big-picture themes in small-town life, picking through the fears and cravings of men who grew up hard, and have stuck to that mode of living ever since: “We turned into our parents before we were out of our teens” sings this nameless narrator. It’s a portrait of hunting, chopping wood, an unrepentant dalliance here or there, all wrapped up in a streak of fierce independence and quiet dignity.
In “You Got To Me,” McMurtry sings of a man at a wedding, the fall weather and his own hometown framing a rush of memories, all centered on a woman who ultimately wasn’t meant to be. The internal thoughts blend and intertwine with the external scene intertwine throughout as McMurtry delivers one knockout line after another: “The wedding party is raging yet / How the old and desperate misbehave / The limo smells like cocaine sweat / cheap cologne and aftershave,” he sings.
The banjo shuffle of “Ain’t Got a Place” offers a lighter mood, one of rambling and roaming. Leaving or staying, coming or going, no matter which way the rivers run, sometimes it’s all the same.
“How’m I Gonna Find You Now” is the album’s roadhouse rocker, its driving backbeat leading McMurtry on a bizarre roadtrip odyssey, served up as a meth-paced talking blues tune. It’s a bit paranoid, a bit overzealous and the type of song you’d expect to find lurking around some strange town on the side of the highway.
Nobody can manage to fit a novel into a five- or six-minute song like McMurtry, and the 12-song Complicated Game offers several: “Carlisle’s Haul,” “South Dakota” and “Long Island Sound.” Though none are as cinematic and poignant as “Ruby And Carlos” from 2008’s Just Us Kids, all three are keeper songs, the type to revisit over the years, different lines jumping up and demanding attention. Whether it’s the fishing story that frames “Carlisle’s Haul,” or the soldier returning home to not much at all in “South Dakota,” or the family man seeking contentment in “Long Island Sound,” McMurtry’s story-songs shine, vibrant and relatable.
The lyrical praise McMurtry has earned over the last 25 years has left his lead guitar playing unheralded, but he mainly bypasses that aspect on Complicated Game. Mainly acoustic, the album incorporates banjo, mandolin, accordion, violin, piano and organ, all deftly in service to a sound that’s subdued, yet lush and full.
Having long earned his place on the short list of best American songwriters, McMurtry is remarkably turning better with age. Complicated Game is brilliant album, dense and thoughtful as McMurtry swirls around inside the heads of another set of fascinating characters.